Peele’s Triumphant Debut Get Out Interrogates Liberal Racism

Christian Bolles, Editor-in-Chief

Directorial debuts are often fragile. The vast majority of them display a promising but flawed proof of behind-the-camera skill, so for any new director, finding success in their first effort is difficult. When it comes to non-white directors, however, Hollywood’s prevailing whiteness and racism elevates that difficulty to nearly complete impenetrability. After years of building up his reputation via the famed sketch comedy show Key & Peele and contributing to the script for last year’s warmly received comedy Keanu, Jordan Peele finally took the chance to flex his directorial muscles, breaking into the Hollywood mainstream with the explosive, laser-focused Get Out.

The film blows past the stigma that often accompanies a debut and feels much more like the boldest work of a seasoned director at the peak of their career. Get Out’s singular voice, bitingly original and intelligent in its interrogation of the role of race in today’s social landscape, is the fuel to the film’s unstoppable fire, one that has propelled it to the top of U.S. box offices and secured it an early designation as one of 2017’s best new features. With its tight script, Peele’s fresh mixture of horror and comedy is a genre-defining work that will stay relevant for years to come.

Get Out follows a woman named Rose (Allison Williams) bringing her boyfriend Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), a photographer, home to meet her parents for the first time. Chris is Black and understandably nervous about how he will be received in Rose’s white, upper-class family — as his best friend Rod admonishes, there is no way this is going to end well. But with some sweet words and a calm demeanor, Rose convinces Chris — and perhaps some of the audience — that her family isn’t racist at all, citing that her father would “vote for Obama a third time if he could.”

And indeed, despite living on an isolated country estate, the Armitage family seems comfortable with Chris’ presence. But some of the film’s best writing comes from the casual racism offloaded by Rose’s dad, Dean (Bradley Whitford), as he tries at every turn to prove just how racist he isn’t. Peele, the film’s sole writer, sets out to expose and break down the barriers we place between subtle and overt racism with both cringe-worthy and deeply emotional moments. Through Chris’ honed photographer’s eyes, we see the Armitage estate, fittingly, as a sort of haunted house, where Chris is constantly vulnerable and scares lurk around every corner.

One of Get Out’s defining characteristics is its ability to address racism — especially its subtleties — in a format palatable to the white people whose intentions it questions. An upper-class white crowd will find plenty of cause for self-reflection, as the camera’s affection for Chris affords an unflinching look at whiteness and its unceasing profession of good intentions without any real consideration of the consequences. Rose is the quintessential embodiment of this, as she constantly apologizes for her family’s insensitivity while doing nothing about it.

This is undoubtedly a film that will be shaped by the perspective of the viewer, and yet its message is universal: attempting to avoid culpability for the persistence of racism fetishizes Blackness. Beneath all the Armitages’ pandering, they see and exploit Chris as little more than a useful tool that allows them to feel morally upright. Close-ups of Chris’ face as he slowly begins to crack under the stress make for some of the film’s most compelling moments amidst otherwise standard cinematography.

Kaluuya’s performance never falters, even as his character’s psychological state does. Fans of the now-famous Netflix series Black Mirror will recognize him from one of its best installments, which concluded with an unforgettable career-making monologue. In Get Out, he brings the same power and charm. There is a reason most posters for the film consist solely of his stunned face, eyes wide, tears dripping down his cheeks: The intensity he brings to the role punctuates the story’s dramatic moments, just as his spot-on timing and nuanced delivery elevates its superb comedy.

The interplay between horror and comedy is balanced just as well by the film’s other actors as it is by Peele and Kaluuya. Williams’ portrayal of Rose maintains a steady balance between being genuine and mysterious, and Whitford as Dean is genial, bumbling and sinister all at once. The only real misfire comes with Lil Rel Howery’s late-film presence as Rod. While his earlier scenes are some of the film’s funniest, the character, who seems to have come straight out of one of Peele’s sketches, robs the story’s heaviest moments of some of their power.

The occasional imbalance of levity and direness doesn’t detract much, however, as Get Out’s plot points have power to spare. As the eerily stiff Black servants of the Armitage family, Walter (Marcus Henderson) and Georgina (Betty Gabriel), portend, this film has one hell of a twist up its sleeve, and when Peele finally shows his hand, viewers will find themselves repeating the movie’s title, desperately hoping that everything turns out all right. The climax is nothing short of exhilarating, defying expectations while fitting snugly within the structural confines of a good horror romp. Peele defends his bold thesis to the end, concluding with narrative grace notes that address the trivialization of Black bodies through stereotypical notions of desirability in no uncertain terms. The effects of Get Out linger long after the final notes of its opening and closing song, for while Peele may tie his whopper of a movie together with a neat bow, the themes it discusses remain.

As long as racism remains so deeply embedded in American society, Get Out’s bite will continue to elicit myriad reactions from a mainstream audience: horror, sympathy and, perhaps with time, a newfound resolve to change.